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Rocco seeks to embody team-first mentality

Family ties, hard work ethic lay groundwork for signal caller

Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco stood in his own territory on third-and-12, watching a designed screen deteriorate and two William & Mary rushers shed their blockers and charge toward him. It was the opening quarter of his first collegiate start, and many players in his situation would have panicked. Instead, Rocco calmly dumped the ball off to junior Perry Jones, letting the tailback scamper up the sideline for 15 yards and a first down.

That's exactly why Virginia coach Mike London tabbed Rocco as his starter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Metheny has more experience and is a more vocal offensive leader. Freshman quarterback David Watford is more athletic, and redshirt freshman Michael Strauss has the stronger arm, but London needed a quarterback that could consistently handle the ball and make the right decisions. Against William & Mary, he needed a passer that was steady - not necessarily scintillating - and Rocco was that quarterback.

"There's a calmness about [Rocco], and there's an understanding about the style of offense that we have, about how to distribute the ball to the different playmakers," London said. "He's a pocket guy that can make some of the reads."

Rocco's football savvy is a natural byproduct of his lineage. His father, Frank Rocco, Jr., played quarterback for the legendary Joe Paterno at Penn State, and his grandfather, Frank Rocco Sr., served as an assistant coach for the Nittany Lions. Rocco's uncle, Danny, also played at Penn State, worked as defensive coordinator at Virginia and now holds Liberty University's head coaching position. Michael's brother, Chris, meanwhile, plays for his uncle at Liberty.

"Our family does a good job of putting football on the side," Rocco said. "Even though we're all pretty competitive they do a good job of making it family time."

Football discussions may be banned at the family dinner table, but they were certainly featured prominently in Rocco's upbringing. As a youth, the Lynchburg, Va. native regularly attended Virginia football games at Scott Stadium and considered himself a student of the game even at an early age.

"I enjoyed watching [Virginia] football games," Rocco said. "When I was 10 or younger, I was one of the kids who ran around and played football on the Hill. As I grew up, I loved watching football games and watching great players play."

Rocco's gridiron education remains family-based and was a key determinant in his decision to attend Virginia. His father coached him at Liberty Christian Academy and provided a wealth of college recruiting advice. When Rocco decommitted from Louisville after the team fired then-coach Steve Kragthorpe, he and his family reached out to London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.

"We got a call from his family stating that he was interested in reopening his process," London said. "I think the familiarity the family had with the coaches here on staff and myself was one of the issues. Once he met coach Lazor and the style of offense we were going to run, that was another issue that brought him here."

Virginia's offensive system suits Rocco in part because it reflects his own ideas. He said Lazor allows him to write down plays on paper, and the two build an offense that incorporates his own suggestions.

"After a game we have a play sheet that I fill out, and I just mention the plays that I like the most and ... my plays actually matched up a lot with coach Lazor's," Rocco said. "So I felt comfortable with the whole game plan. He did a good job of getting me into a rhythm early, and it went on through the game. I knew my playmakers on the play. I knew where to go with the football."

Rocco's comfort level helped him execute Virginia's offense with clinical precision Saturday night against the Tribe. He finished 21-of-29, with 174 yards, no touchdowns but also no interceptions. He had few long gains but never backtracked with a sack. He may not have been explosive, but that was never his intention.

"Our game plan was pound the ball down their throats, and then there will be plays to make in the air, and that's what we did," Rocco said. "Whenever there wasn't something down the field, I checked the ball down, and that's an emphasis that we go through the whole summer."

The term 'game manager' carries a negative connotation in many football circles, but Rocco realizes that the success of London's second season hinges on his ability to cede the spotlight to flashier weapons and more vocal veterans.

"Becoming the quarterback here, you kind of put yourself in a position to be the leader, but we also have a bunch of guys that have been around, fifth-year guys who know what's expected of them and help me lead," Rocco said. "It's encouraging to know that you've got guys like [senior wide receiver] Matt Snyder, [senior wide receiver] Kris Burd ... they're all leaders out there on the field"